WASHINGTON -- Too much salt is hidden in Americans' food, and regulators plan to work with manufacturers to cut back, but the government isn't ready to go along with a major new recommendation that it order a decrease.
"We believe we can achieve some substantial voluntary reductions," Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said Tuesday. "We are shaping a strategy, and that strategy involves working in partnership."
Don't expect soups, pizzas and breakfast cereals -- yes, they contain added sodium, too -- to taste different any time soon. The FDA's plans still are being formulated, but the idea is for gradual change so consumer taste buds can adjust, as well as industry recipes and production methods.
Americans eat about 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt daily, more than double what they need for good health and enough to increase the risk of high blood pressure, strokes and other problems. Most of that sodium doesn't come from the table salt shaker; it's hidden inside common processed foods and restaurant meals.
On Tuesday, the prestigious Institute of Medicine said the food industry has made little progress in voluntarily reducing sodium. The advisers urged the FDA to set maximum sodium levels for different foods in a stepwise rollback, so that eventually average consumption would drop by about half a teaspoon.
"This needs to be a mandatory standard," said Dr. Jane E. Henney of the University of Cincinnati, a former FDA commissioner who headed the IOM's study. Because salt is so "ubiquitous, having one or two in the industry make strong attempts at this doesn't give us that even playing field over time. It's not sustainable."
The IOM report doesn't set a deadline but says it will take years to phase in the changes for consumers who are used to the taste of a high-salt diet.
One in three U.S. adults has high blood pressure, which is a leading cause of heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure. And while being overweight and inactive raises blood pressure, too much salt is a big culprit as well. The American Medical Association has said 150,000 lives a year could be saved by cutting in half sodium levels in processed and restaurant food.
"This is crying out for a change that's long overdue," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who helped spur the IOM report and plans hearings on next steps.
Hamburg said that while her agency is reviewing the recommendations, it isn't currently writing new regulations -- and that setting legal limits on how much sodium can be added to different foods would take longer than collaborating with food makers on salt-cutting goals.
"We would be working with them to establish targets," she said. "We absolutely see reducing salt in the diets of Americans as a very important public health priority. ... You'll see us sitting down with key industry partners and starting to define a road map."
Government guidelines set 2,300 milligrams of sodium as the maximum daily intake -- the amount above which health problems can appear. The IOM says people need just 1,500 mg a day for good health, less if they're older than 50. Yet average consumption is more than 3,400 mg.